Of the many articles I’ve written during my short time on this planet, only one fills me with shame whenever I think of it. It was conceived as an attempt to tick off readers, and it was executed with deliberately incendiary language. It launched a tidal wave of vitriol in my direction, much of it deserved. It’s a blot on my conscience, my reputation, and my self-Googling results. On multiple occasions, I’ve met fellow geeks and, upon giving my name, heard some variation of the sentence “Hey, you’re the guy who wrote that mean article about Captain America, right?”
The answer is yes. My name is Abraham Riesman, I wrote that mean article about Captain America, and it’s time for me to apologize.
In early April of 2014, I, like countless others, had Cap on the brain. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was about to be released, and, eager to get a byline, I pitched a post pegged to it. It was approved and published with a blunt headline (one composed by yours truly): “Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He’s a Prick.” The post staged a two-pronged attack on Captain America. First, I argued that the character was, for the most part, “fundamentally dull”:
It's sort of astounding that a character as featureless as Captain America has endured, mostly unchanged, for nearly 75 years after readers first fell for his Hitler-punching adventures.
I reserved particular ire for the way he was portrayed by Chris Evans in Winter Soldier and the other Avengers-franchise flicks:
Not only does he save the world and the American dream, he does so while remaining flawlessly kind, endlessly moral, and effortlessly charming at all times. But with perfection comes blandness.
The second prong was an endorsement of the rare occasions when the character has been depicted as a jerk. Embarrassingly enough, I could only conjure up two textual examples: an asshole-ish alternate-universe version of him from a comics series called The Ultimates, and a mid-aughts comics story where it was revealed that mainstream-universe Cap was complicit in training a 16-year-old to be a violent murderer. In my eyes, a soldier frozen in the '40s and awakened now would “be uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values” and would “be more John McCain than Barack Obama.”
The piece was published at 11:35 a.m. on April 7, and within just a few hours it was the geek web’s preferred hate-read of the day. “EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS WRONG AND SYMBOLIC OF OUR NONSENSICAL AND INDULGENT FASCINATION WITH ANTI-HEROES,” tweeted pseudonymous culture critic @FilmCritHULK. “You have every right to your opinion, but it is, actually, the wrongest possible opinion, down there with geocentrism and the hollow earth theory,” mused commenter PerhapsNot. Writer Steven Attewell wrote a blog post at Lawyers, Guns & Money entitled “Why Abraham Riesman Doesn’t Know Jack About Captain America.”
The list of takedowns goes on and on and on. To make matters worse, many of those takedowns were thoughtful and well-written. My stomach churns to even think of them; I don’t have the constitution to go back and reread.
At the time, I was surprised by all the contempt. I had intended the post to be provocative and knew I’d be rankling Cap fans, but I had no idea how raw a nerve I had touched. Nevertheless, I wasn’t content to simply chalk this up to a difference of opinion between me and my detractors. I felt compelled to write a long Tumblr post doubling down on my viewpoint and drove my friends nuts with my pleas for absolution in private conversation. I couldn’t really be all that wrong, could I?
Looking back on the whole fracas now, I think I couldn’t let go because I had a guilty conscience. I wasn’t lying about anything in the article, but I also wasn’t telling the whole truth, because I wasn’t accepting the whole truth. While it was true that I had never found most Captain America comics all that exciting, that absence of passion didn’t explain why I felt it was necessary to go on the troll-ish warpath. I wrote that article because I was angry that other people were playing with my toys.
As of 2014, I’d been reading superhero comics for 17 years, most of them Marvel comics. I’d spent an obscene sum of money on them and devoted countless hours to thinking about them. As such, I felt a degree of ownership over the characters within them. The comics industry had collapsed in the mid-'90s, right around when I became a reader. When I went to my first comics convention, Marvel Comics was in bankruptcy. Superhero movies were few and far between (and, in the case of Batman & Robin, the object of widespread ridicule). In other words, superhero fiction was a relatively isolated pursuit for much of my young life. Even in the aughts, the successful X-Men and Spider-Man franchises failed to generate legions of obsessive fans; they merely racked up satisfied viewers.
That changed with the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It began with 2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, which started to weave an interlinked tapestry of filmed superhero fiction that continued with Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and 2012’s megahit The Avengers. The MCU kick-started its own fandom. By 2014, one needed only to take a glance at Tumblr to see reams of fanfiction and fan art about Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and other figures I’d pored over for nearly two decades. I’m still not exactly sure why it happened, though I suspect it’s because the MCU was so ripe for obsessive appreciation: The cast was massive, the humor was infectious, and the bonds of friendship (and, perhaps subtextually, romance) between characters were strong. Plus, the MCU matured in an era when fandom cultures were getting easier to find, thanks to the exponential growth of Tumblr and Twitter.
I used both of those platforms incessantly, so I was very aware of the rise of MCU fandom — and although I would never have said so publicly, it pissed me off. These people were talking about my characters! What’s worse, they weren’t even talking about the comics! They were just talking about these bullshit Hollywood movies! I wasn’t sitting around stewing about MCU fans all day, but I certainly held a low-level contempt for them that would rise from a simmer to a low boil every time I’d accidentally scroll past some Steve Rogers–Tony Stark erotic artwork on my Tumblr feed.
In short, I found the bandwagon fawning over these characters repulsive. The recent superhero boom has represented one of the most remarkable migrations of intellectual property in history, and as the ever-expanding MCU started resonating with people who had never endured the sweaty claustrophobia of a comics shop, I felt weirdly betrayed, because these movies and shows were so much more popular than the comics I’d been reading.
On top of that, as I’d gotten older, I’d grown less enchanted with superhero comics and far more critical of their shortcomings. Seeing all of these people love these characters so passionately really pissed me off. It felt like a significant other I’d loved but often fought with had dumped me and was now in a happy, stable relationship with someone way more attractive than I ever was.
So that’s the headspace I was in when I trotted off to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it blinded me to the film’s virtues — and the character’s. It’s true that I’d never particularly enjoyed Captain America stories in comics, but the reason was that he’d always seemed so boring and stoic. That’s what made his Ultimates depiction interesting by contrast: There was something to grab on to. But Evans’s version also had a lot to grab on to! He was buoyant, charming, bashful, passionate, a little naïve, and often hilarious (I mean, come on, that little to-do list from the first scene of Winter Soldier?). He wasn’t boring. But he was beloved by many others, and as a child of the mid-'90s, I wasn’t ready for a Marvel superhero to be popular in mainstream culture. I rejected him like a poorly matched organ donation. Thus, my piece.
Luckily, that piece had a bizarre and counterintuitive consequence: It brought me friends from the MCU fandom. I felt so vulnerable and confused about the response to the article that I started talking about it with some of my detractors. When Gavia Baker-Whitelaw of the Daily Dot wrote a retort to my piece, I reached out to her on Twitter to thank her for taking the time to analyze what I’d written. That kicked off a correspondence that continues to this day. When I met writer Sulagna Misra at a movie screening in late 2014, she told me she knew me from the loathed article, and I listened as she outlined all of the reasons it was off-base. She’s now one of my favorite pen pals. Both of them, in addition to being talented journalists, were part of MCU fandom. They in turn introduced me to other smart, insightful MCU enthusiasts, who have taught me so much about what makes online fan cultures tick.
Watching Captain America: Civil War, I did have a few moments of awe at the fact that these pieces of intellectual property, once so unsuccessful in the marketplace, have become so monumental. I don’t know that I’ll ever totally get used to it. But that discomfort should never be the starting point for anything I write. I’m certainly not uncritical of these megablockbuster corporate products. But every time I start working on something judgmental of the MCU, I have to ask myself, Am I having a Captain America–should-be-a-prick moment? If I am, I need to revise my argument. Critique is good; getting angry because other people like something I like is bad. I’m not proud of the article, but I’m glad it’s there as a reminder that I’ll always have blind spots, and that it’s my job as a writer to grapple with them.